Last edited 09 Mar 2021

Main author

Michael Brooks

Interview with Julie Hirigoyen, UK-GBC

Launched in 2007, the UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) is a membership organisation campaigning for a sustainable built environment – one that minimises negative environmental impacts while maximising benefits for people everywhere.

Designing Buildings Wiki sat down with UK-GBC Chief Executive Julie Hirigoyen to discuss some of the wide-ranging issues facing the green building industry today, from the launch of their first Innovation Lab, and the government scrapping zero carbon homes, to the performance gap and the influence of President Trump on a sustainable built environment.


Designing Buildings Wiki (DBW): UK-GBC has just launched the first Innovation Lab. What was the initial impetus behind wanting to establish this?

Julie Hirigoyen (JH):

We’ve been focused on leadership and innovation for quite some time but its taken an even more central position in our strategy going forwards. Largely, this is because our aspiration is to radically change and improve the sustainability of the built environment and to do that we need to stretch those that are at the leading edge and raise awareness to those who aren't.

The Innovation Lab is aimed at those trying to achieve ‘sustainability breakthroughs’. We were particularly concerned about the very low levels of investment that are going into R&D by construction. We’re trying to foster a safe and non-competitive open innovation process that will enable those firms to come together and break through some of those really tricky challenges that they couldn’t do on their own.

DBW: How do you think the Lab can work to remove the possibility of compromising intellectual property that tends to present obstacles to collaboration?


We’ve spent a long time in its inception working with partners – Canary Wharf Group, Land Securities and Marks & Spencer – working through those issues. They all have their own focus on innovation internally, and what they are bringing to this forum is stuff they can’t crack. So they know they need others beyond just the core project partners.

Those kind of solutions are likely to be collaborative and not necessarily a product or service that one of them would take off on their own. If they’re not willing to subscribe to the ‘open innovation’ ethos then they probably wouldn’t be sat round the table in the first place, but our experience is that those who have engaged recognise the challenges and are really keen on a process that is centrally-convened by someone objective.

Innovation lab.jpg

DBW: You reacted with ‘extreme disappointment’ after the scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes initiative in 2015. A year-and- a-half on, what are your thoughts about that decision now?


We are anticipating the Housing White Paper and a whole series of policy instruments this year that will potentially give rise to a possibility to redress some of that.

Housing is right at the top of the political list of priorities, as it should be, but we are very concerned that as well as quantity, we should be building better quality homes that all research suggests improve the wellbeing and health of the occupants, and lower energy costs.

We are hoping and will be asking for much stronger policy frameworks around housing. If we had a policy ask, it would be to put a zero carbon trajectory, or a net emissions trajectory of some kind, back on the timetable. This would at least give some certainty to the industry in terms of what’s coming up, and allow them to invest with the level of confidence that they need.

We have published a green paper specifically looking at what local authorities themselves can do to drive up those standards of housing, demonstrating leadership, drawing out examples of best practice in terms of planning, open viability-type schemes, devolution deals and what powers they should be asking for through those. There’s quite a lot of opportunity for those standards to be raised. It's not just central government policy, there’s a little bit of responsibility across the spectrum, and as with London's zero carbon target now, we may get more ‘place-based’ standards.

DBW: Since that announcement, there’s been a change of leadership at the top of government. Are you optimistic that Theresa May’s government will be any more receptive to green building or do you think they seem to have more or less abandoned the idea of creating a long-term policy strategy?


I don’t think it would be fair to say they’ve abandoned it. With Brexit they are very preoccupied with the seismic shifts that will make a really big difference to the regulatory landscape of the nation.

Having said that, the way they’ve restructured the departments, some of the appointments they have made, are much more encouraging than those in place before, particularly with the creation of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and the integration of climate change and energy strategy within that.

All indication suggests that the secretary of state and ministers in that department are passionate that climate change and low carbon solutions should be integrated within a policy strategy.

Time will tell, the proof is not yet out. The rhetoric from Theresa May herself, in terms of the role of central government should play in addressing some of the social inequalities and the ratification of Paris (see COP 21), is really encouraging.


DBW: Is there a concern that with the housing shortage being such a prominent issue at present, government will focus on trying to hit their new build targets, without due consideration for whether they are suitably energy efficient?


That’s absolutely a concern. If there’s no policy framework then it is so much more challenging to secure. We would be calling for higher standards to be set at national and local government level, and the quality piece is part of that. But we also need to evaluate quality in a better way.

To date, we’ve had a huge gap between design intent and operational performance in use, and that gap is a major concern. So even where we’ve had standards, we weren’t necessarily meeting them in practice. We’re calling for a greater focus on the way buildings perform in-use, and a greater accountability for that end-use quality at the earlier stages of design, planning and compliance.

DBW: Could you hazard a guess as to why the current government has taken the approach it has to developing a sustainable built environment, when our legal targets are in place to be met?


On the zero carbon new build homes specifically - there were all sorts of political reasons which I won’t go into. In a push for numbers, which there undoubtedly is, some within the industry would have argued that any form of regulation would hinder some of those numbers. As it happens, many hundreds within the industry didn’t believe that to be the case and there was ten years of investment into what it would take to achieve zero carbon.

On things like the retrofit agenda, clearly the Green Deal policy had been implemented and was failing, not least because interest rates were too high and there wasn’t enough to stimulate consumer demand. One of the lessons is that just putting an available finance mechanism in place doesn’t stimulate demand.

So it wasn’t necessarily an abandonment of anything retrofit, albeit we’re still waiting to see what will come after it, but it was a recognition that one measure and nothing much else won’t get us to the levels of retrofit that we need.

Green deal cancelled.jpg

We’ve been researching a Lender’s Project, which is about the ways in which lenders, particularly mortgage lenders, are actually evaluating the energy efficiency of homes at the point at which they are offering their mortgages. If we were to make those financial metrics stronger and arrive at a better methodology for doing that, it could start to drive and incentivise action on the consumer part much more than some complicated finance mechanism. It's quite a complex mixture of actually setting out the trajectory and putting in place the measures that will drive the demand and the supply on the solutions.

It's such a massive job, particularly the home retrofit agenda, so we are calling for that to be a national infrastructure policy. If we aggregate up all the value of the investment required, it’s a Crossrail or an HS2 type thing. That would signal the recognition from the government that this is a huge opportunity but also a major investment, that could tick many of the current government’s priorities.

DBW: Is the industry is paying close enough attention to the performance gap and what do you think could be done to improve standards in this area?


We put out a report last year about the performance gap in which we unpicked some of the fundamental things that go wrong in the process.

The targets that are being set at the design stage are compliance targets, so by-and-large they don’t include a lot of the energy load, power loads, don’t pay attention to who will be occupying the building and how; they are all based on design assumptions that are based on complying with the regulations, which is not the right target to set.

The more complex target for how the building will actually perform given a number of different variables, would be better, so that would reduce the gap. We would definitely call for more attentiveness to how buildings perform in-use at that early design stage.

The other really critical factor is the fragmentation of the industry and of the supply chain. There is a lot of 'passing the buck' - no one project team is ultimately accountable for the way that building performs. If you think about any other type of product, that’s really quite unusual. We’re effectively mis-selling the product, a product most people spend more money on than anything else they’ll ever buy.

So there’s definitely issues around accountability, and one of the things we highlighted in our report was around leadership and the way C-suite needs to take ownership within some of the businesses that are delivering homes and other buildings. They actually need to see that all the way through. Clearly that affects contractual, procurement processes, review processes, and not least the feedback loops at the end of the day, which is often the part that gets completely overlooked, particularly with new homes; there’s no post-occupancy evaluation, and all of that learning and feedback would really help.

DBW: Many countries and cities across Europe have a much more successful record at delivering sustainable homes than the UK. Why do you think this is and what could we learn from them?


I think the UK has been a leader on a lot of climate and energy policy up until recent times, so we are often looked at in terms of best practice. There’s no doubt that green buildings are gaining momentum around the world, there are 74 green building councils across the world, as well as the World Green Building Council.

It’s very hard to compare one country with another, not least because we all use different performance standards, different regulations, metrics, and so on. There are pockets of best practice that one can point to - there’s a lot of good practice in Australia (the Neighbours system gets quoted a lot in terms of commercial real estate), The Edge in the Netherlands for example.

What’s interesting is that there is greater appetite, particularly at the city level, to share experiences and knowledge, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group is a good example. The latest here in the UK, is UK100 – a group of local authority leaders who have signed up to clean energy by 2050.


DBW: In terms of making progress towards a sustainable built environment, are you concerned about the impact the impending Trump presidency may have on the UK and other countries?


Trump doesn’t have hugely green credentials and has said many things that are fairly concerning, to put it mildly, around climate change. He seems to be U-turning on many of his previous statements, but has made appointments that are concerning, and made statements about unwinding global climate agreements, and so on.

He will find it quite difficult to do that on his own, there’ll be a whole process involved in that which may or may not be feasible within his term. Whatever happens, the momentum is building, you look at the cities going zero carbon, and investment communities, built environment businesses and occupier businesses, it is inexorably moving towards a decarbonised built environment.

Whilst we are concerned at the prospect of the dismantling of some of the core policies and legislation, we’re not of the view that that would actually destroy the whole movement, it’s too far matured and gaining momentum too rapidly for that to happen, and the local and business leadership would be far too strong.


DBW: What does UK-GBC have lined up that you are most looking forward to in 2017?


It’s our tenth anniversary this year, so we’re doing a lot of work reflecting on our last decade and planning our next. We’ve got lots of things in store, not least a big party!

We mentioned the Innovation Lab being kicked off, in January we’re running a cities leadership summit in Leeds with around 80 civic and business leaders, getting them together to enhance the public-private relationship around the delivery of sustainable cities which will lead to a whole programme of action.

We’re also launching our fourth cohort of Future Leaders, a leadership programme for ‘rising stars’ in the industry which is really successful and we get some fantastic innovative projects coming out of that.

We’re launching a number of projects at EcoBuild this year, an embodied carbon client brief, and so on.

We are working on our extensive L&D curriculum with a whole suite of sustainability training opportunities suitable for all professionals and learning levels. In terms of our wellbeing labs - we are halfway through such a lab focused on office/workplace projects and hope to launch a retail lab later in the year, along with the launch of a change accelerator programme.

We are also doing some extensive work around the business case for sustainable real estate and construction with a new project kicking off imminently to develop a Beginners Guide to Measuring the Value of Sustainability.

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--Michael Brooks

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